We keep traveling in circles in the technology space and we often don’t recognize we’ve done so. Perhaps it’s a bit more of a spiral than a circle since we do end up at a slightly different starting point each time.
The first computers I worked on were dumb terminals wired to a central processor. The next step was to take some load off the central processor by distributing some processing power to the terminals and making them a little smart. Then, as memory and processing power got cheaper, we made the remote devices powerful enough to operate on their own and connect with a central hub to pass data — often to the big, powerful tools needed to grind through large volumes of data. In addition, connecting to the hub allowed us to share with others.
Hardware has followed a very similar path. My first GPS unit had an external antenna connected by a cable to a box containing the circuit board with all of the intelligence. There was a separate external power supply and the whole thing had to connect to a computer. Gradually, all of the pieces came together into a nice handheld unit. At least with the consumer-grade GPS, the external antenna connection became optional and the connection to the computer was to share data with the desktop program and load updates to the GPS.
Amateur radio (ham radio) went the same way. Early mobile units often had a large box under the dash, which was wired to another large box in the trunk of the car. Transistors and miniaturization allowed all of that to get consolidated into a single unit. Then, to reduce the space required in the driver/passenger compartment, manufacturers developed a wired, detachable faceplate and we were putting a small unit on the dash and a larger component under the seat. The next step was to make that connection wireless.
One of the latest innovations in amateur radio is software-enabled transceivers. No surprise, the same thing is happening in geospatial — the software-enabled GNSS. Your smartphone or tablet becomes the user interface for the system. Things aren’t going to stop there. We can certainly count on more software-enabled devices capitalizing on the increasingly powerful user interface we are all carrying in our pockets.
Manufacturers — Leica, Riegl, Topcon, Trimble, you name it — are putting more power into each device. Lasers and photo imaging are being joined by thermal imaging. It’s all in one package that already includes GPS/GNSS and probably a Bluetooth or other wireless link for data sharing and/or user interface. That means your standard surveying kit communicates directly with that phone in your pocket. You already have a comfort level with the apps and user interface of your phone, so your learning curve and productivity get a boost.
A next step in reducing the real estate needed for all that functionality in the workhorse laser/photo/thermal/GNSS is to move the processing power again and follow the software-enabled path. It’s not quite a circle, but it’s definitely not a straight line.